Nuclear push is about ideology, not solutions

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Australia is experiencing an energy crisis on multiple fronts. In the short-term we are facing skyrocketing power prices, and grid stability issues. In the long-but-getting-shorter-by-the-day-term Australia's disproportionate contribution to climate change is still a massive problem. Neither of these situations is sustainable.

Smoke emitting from nuclear reactors at a plant in Aachen, Germany (Credit: Classen Rafael / EyeEm / Getty)Fortunately, the government has a brains trust — featuring former Deputy-PM Barnaby Joyce — who are on the case. Recent months have seen a push by Joyce and his allies to alter existing legislation and allow the use of nuclear power. Joyce has even been so keen on the idea that he suggested giving those who can see a nuclear power station from their house free or reduced energy prices. Capitulating to the powerful conservative arm of his party, energy minister Angus Taylor has commissioned a parliamentary inquiry into the feasibility of nuclear power.

The problem with the discussion about nuclear energy is that it is a distraction; an ideologically driven misdirection by those who are more concerned with opposing renewables and the 'green-left' than solving our country's energy problems. Nuclear just doesn't make sense for Australia at this stage of the game. To suggest it does reveals a view so blinkered by anti-green, anti-renewable ideology that it is devoid of all logic.

There are a few regular arguments made for the adoption of nuclear power: it is a high-yield, reliable and essentially carbon-neutral option for power production. Coupled with this are Australia's vast repositories of uranium, which — so the argument goes — will ensure Australia's energy independence. Yet, by any objective metric, nuclear cannot hold a (uranium-powered) candle up to renewables.

Firstly, while there is some initial carbon produced over the whole lifecycle of any form of energy, the total lifecycle emissions of renewables, for example wind power, are significantly smaller than nuclear.

Renewable energy is also considerably friendlier to the environment in other ways. For starters, nuclear power relies on uranium, which must be extracted by environmentally damaging mining. This is an ongoing process and even though uranium is currently abundant in Australia, it is a finite resource; the sun and wind, are not. (As an aside, nuclear is less friendly to birdlife than wind farms, despite what you might hear from critics about turbines and their bird-blending properties.)

Moreover, we must consider the non-zero possibility of a catastrophic nuclear disaster. Though the reality of nuclear power is more often than not mundane, the phrase 'nuclear power' evokes a number of vivid images in the mind of the average punter. Perhaps it brings up memories of the recent Fukushima nuclear disaster, or the USSR's Chernobyl (which has dramatically and gruesomely been dragged back into the public consciousness by HBO's incredible show of the same name).

 

"Anyone currently arguing that nuclear is cheaper than renewables is either behind the times or lying to you."

 

Though most nuclear power plants function without explosions or meltdowns, these kinds of events are not entirely impossible. If one were to happen in Australia, it could affect our flora, fauna, agricultural industry, and make large areas of land uninhabitable for generations to come.

Additionally, the adoption of nuclear power creates the incredibly controversial problem of nuclear waste disposal. This waste is an issue not just for a generation or two, but for over 100,000 years. Nobody wants that in their yard! This has been a particular source of consternation for First Australians, whose traditional lands are being considered as disposal sites without proper consultation or consent.

The other key arguments for nuclear, those of price and reliability, also fall in the face of scrutiny. In short, anyone currently arguing that nuclear is cheaper than renewables is either behind the times or lying to you.

In the early 2000s it was true that nuclear was the more economically viable mode of energy production, but in the past decade the price of renewable energy has plummeted and its efficiency has skyrocketed. This trend is likely to continue as economies of scale increase the efficiency of production and the output of the technology itself. It may even soon be the case that building new renewables will be cheaper than keeping our existing coal-fired stations open.

Given that it would likely take more than a decade to open a new nuclear power station (and many fewer years to deploy comparable rapidly-decreasing-in-price-renewables), it is not a viable solution to our immediate problems and simply doesn't make sense in the long-term.

The main criticism of renewable energy is that it is unreliable; it supposedly cannot support baseload power. Though this might be one area where nuclear has some strengths, there are already plans to address this issue (like Tesla's highly effective giant battery in South Australia).

The reality is that a switch to renewables is going to require a complex reimagining of our power grid. This is not a bad thing, but it requires planning and forethought. Underlying this must be a forward-thinking vision, which our current government lacks.

Disposal of renewable technology at the end of its lifecycle is also a concern for some. This is, however, another distraction. We have the technology to recycle renewables, governments and industry just need to invest in the infrastructure to facilitate this process.

Finally, there is an additional danger in adopting nuclear in that it could mask the inevitable need to transfer to renewable energy. Our world cannot afford to rely on fuel that comes from finite resources or that we have no real way to dispose of; nuclear is just another way to kick the can down the road for a future generation to deal with.

The insistence on adopting nuclear is another failure of imagination by conservative ideologues who are so opposed to any action on climate change (and by association renewable energy) that they would rather steer us to an outdated, expensive mode of power production instead of a safer, cleaner and more economically viable option. Switching to renewables should be on our government's agenda simply by virtue of being the morally right thing to do in order to avoid climate catastrophe. What we lack is not the resources or technology, but the political will.

 

 

Tim HuttonTim Hutton is a teacher, masters student and freelance writer based in Brisbane. He writes on politics, education, media, societal issues, and the intersection of all of the above.

Main image: Steam emitting from nuclear reactors at a plant in Aachen, Germany (Credit: Classen Rafael / EyeEm / Getty)

Topic tags: Tim Hutton, nuclear energy, green energy, renewables, climate change, Chernobyl, Covering Climate Now

 

 

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The caption on this image - 'Smoke emitting from nuclear reactors...' - is plain wrong. It's not smoke, it's harmless water vapour, the same stuff that those clouds in the background are made of. There are certainly risks associated with nuclear power - as there are with other source of power - but 'smoke' isn't one of them.
Ginger Meggs | 17 September 2019


Ginger, such images have been used to claim smoke pollution of the atmosphere by both nuclear and coal fired power stations. There is deliberate misrepresentation on both sides of the climate/environmental debate unfortunately. Brazil/USA, with the progressive destruction of the Amazon forests is probably responsible for more trouble than nuclear reactors and coal fired power stations combined!
john frawley | 17 September 2019


This is a clearly written article that does not isolate discussion around nuclear power but places it into the whole energy debate. This is where it belongs as we examine the absolute necessity of long term, sustainable, environmentally friendly future energy paths. This article illustrates that nuclear has no place in this strategy.
Tricia Ryan | 18 September 2019


Nuclear is not outdated. In fact its vastly improved and would solve the problem of CO2 emissions. Also its 24/7 energy unlike all the renewable technologies to date. Uranium is the most energy dense element on earth and it makes sense to use it due to its efficiency and no emissions.
Gert Quantar | 18 September 2019


Nuclear power is too expensive, would take many years to build, has a long term waste problem and is totally unnecessary for Australia. I think the idea is a Furphy by politicians who are beholden to the fossil fuel industry who give them big donations. Australia is blessed with abundant sunshine. Let us use it much more. I have solar panels so electricity costs me nothing. Storage batteries are also getting much cheaper. The grid will soon be obsolete.
Grant Allen | 18 September 2019


I agree with the author .Nuclear is not a viable option for Australia . The risks out way the benefits. I strongly support Grant's comments.
Gavin A O'Brien | 18 September 2019


Im not sure how you leap from giving an opinon to writing that Nuclear should not be adopted rather a switch to renewables. These are not either - or. You seem to be writing on a scenario of 1970s. Nuclear is a different proposition today. Having lived in Europe where there are many, many nuclear powerstations, living alongside communities, I think it tells a different story.
me thinks | 18 September 2019


Thanks John F. I wasn't suggesting that Tim or ES were 'deliberately misrepresenting' the risks associated with nuclear energy by incorrectly labelling the 'smoke'; I think it was probably just an example of sloppy editing. But the point you make is important; if we are going to have a sensible debate about this issue then it's important that we distinguish between demonstrable facts and contestable opinion and that our arguments be sound and reasoned and sloppy editing doesn't help. I'm prepared to accept Tim's claim that some pollies are pushing the nuclear option because they are against renewable technologies for ideological reasons but that is not a valid argument against nuclear per se. Some on the other side have also pushed renewable technologies for equally ideological reasons but, again, that is not a valid argument for renewables per se. There is too much of what I would call 'religion' - that is, infallible, unchallengeable, assertions - being used on both sides of this argument and, with respect, I think we can see a number of these in several of the comments following yours.
Ginger Meggs | 18 September 2019


I agree that going nuclear and ignoring renewables is foolish, but ignoring nuclear altogether is also a bad idea. Nuclear is cleaner and more reliable than coal and would make for an ideal backup energy system to renewables; a way to support the grid if you will. A combination of renewables, nuclear, and battery storage would keep Australia moving without a carbon footprint. This way, you wouldn't even need as many nuclear power plants around as you think. Despite what you saw on HBO's Chernobyl, nuclear energy is not the devil everyone thinks it is.
Aoife Callaghan | 18 September 2019


We have no hope of effectively evaluating energy policy unless we make numbers central to our analysis, rather than swash-buckling generalisations based on what we broadly think and feel. This article contains not one number. If a commercial operator can make the nuclear numbers work and meet the regulators guidelines, then nuclear has a major role in our energy mix, as many overseas countries have proven.
Barry | 19 September 2019


I think your article is a wee bit alarmist and not all that up to date with the latest, seemingly safe, small nuclear reactors, Tim. We aren't necessarily talking replicating Chernobyl here! The word 'renewables' conjures up visions of morally virtuous crusaders. They're not. Many of them are hardnosed business people looking at heavy government subsidies. Wind farms would be a prime example of this. Look at the birdlife wind farms kill and their seemingly authenticated adverse health effects on those who live nearby. I wish you'd researched things properly and written an unbiassed article, showing the pros and cons on both sides.
Edward Fido | 20 September 2019


I think that the best way to enhance the case against the implementation of nuclear resides best with highlighting the flaws of containment of uranium facilities which have spectacularly failed and which will continue to emit radiation, which has to be contained now, and into the very distant future say 20,000 years into the future!! Chernobyl is the perfect example,30 years on, and the failures in recent times in Japan.I suggest that Eureka St magazine readers take the time to read the article, "Building Chernobyls Mega tomb shows the danger is far from over.' https://www.sbs.com.au/guide/article/2019/06/24/building-chernobyls-mega-tomb-shows-danger-far-over. I watched a documentary on the long,multinational, extroadinary engineering feat to place a sarcophagus over the Chernobyl reactor to contain radiation emitting from there. Robotic cranes were used to enable this mammoth feat to be realised.The planning was exquisitely executed, but the sarcophagus will probably need to be replaced in 2119.It is expected that the radiation will endure for another 20,000 years.The sarcophagus, by the way is 30 storeys high.What an enormous "stuff up" it was and how extremely dispairing that it will require our energies and finances, human lives, and other resources for another 20,000 years. If some readers are concerned about the digital image above this article, I could suggest that it is replaced by the digital image of the sarcophagus arching over the "Chernobyl nuclear reactor."
Rosanne | 20 September 2019


Thank you, Tim. I respond to the nuclear cheer squad: Intermittency is a fact of life for all forms of power generation. Coal and nuclear stations maybe 24/7 for long stretches, but they are not necessarily "365/24/7". They have to be turned off for maintenance. With storage (such as pumped hydro) solar and wind farms are just as capable of being “24/7”. Both are now highly competitive on a commercial scale against new coal and even more so against new nuclear - by a long way - in terms of the cost of producing wholesale megawatt hours. In Australia we need to reconfigure our transmission networks which were originally designed around central coal fired power stations. Base load power is an Obsolete concept. It was put into practice to give inflexible coal fired power stations something to do at night e.g. to heat domestic water. The sun has been heating my water for a quarter of a century.
John McKeon | 22 September 2019


Thank you for this reasoned and clearly articulated opinion piece. I would welcome a similarly objective response from an advocate of nuclear energy for Australia.
Jenny Holmes | 25 September 2019


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